Once upon a time, there was such a magic to the Fourth of July.
As children, we loved Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, but the Fourth of July was the most wonderful day of the year. In those days, you could shoot firecrackers, and everybody had them.
Then, at night, we had the sky rockets, Roman candles and pinwheels.
As I recall, sky rockets cost 15 cents apiece, and you would put one in a milk bottle, light the fuse and it would go straight up in the air. We had fountains, which you would light, and they would create a fountain 4 or 5 feet high of bright powder and heavy smoke.
There was a quality about the Fourth of July, different from other holidays. There was an aroma.
All of the fireworks had a smell to them. All day, into the late night, and then lingering the next morning, was the smell of the Fourth of July.
The Fourth of July, of course, is Independence Day because it was on July 4, 1776, that members of the Second Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, adopted the final draft of the Declaration of Independence. After its adoption, the Declaration was read to the public in various American cities. Wherever they heard it, patriots erupted in cheers and celebration.
There was a man from Massachusetts, the second president of the United States, John Adams, who said he believed the Fourth of July would be celebrated by succeeding generations as a great anniversary festival. He wrote to his wife, Abigail, “It ought to be celebrated with pomp and parades, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illumination from one end of the continent to the other.”
There was a different patriotism in the 1930s and 1940s. The 1930s, of course, we suffered the Great Depression … where nobody had a job, or so it seemed … where many families went to bed at night hungry … where the children wore hand-me-downs. We were taught in school what a wonderful country we were.
That Depression lasted for 10 years, and it was terrible. The Stanleys were very poor, but it didn’t matter, because everybody was poor. Boys had their corduroy knickers. All little girls worse dresses in those days. But, if there was one day during the summer vacation that everybody celebrated, it was the Fourth of July.
You could buy 2-inch salutes — 100 of them for 50 cents. There were Chinese firecrackers that we all strung together. Once you lit the fuse, they went off like a machine gun.
As I recall, there were no public displays of fireworks except at the fairgrounds out in East Great Plain where, for years, it was the county fair. Then the Elks bought the fairgrounds, and it was the Elks’ fair.
In those days, the trolley cars went as far as the East Great Plain four corners, and so everyone would take the trolley to the fairgrounds. When the fireworks were over, everybody would run, and those trolleys would be lined up — the trolley for Taftville, Baltic, Boswell Avenue, Laurel Hill and Central City. Everyone would sit on those straw seats with the windows open, and the electric trolleys would take us home on the Fourth of July.
Fireworks were sold in all the hardware stores, and special stores would open in abandoned store fronts. Though we were in a Depression, the city was still quite vital. What little business there was existed downtown. After all, nobody had a car, and most people worked downtown.
They were clerks or bankers. Even doctors, lawyers and accountants had their offices downtown.
In those days, The Bulletin had two editors, the morning “Bulletin” and the afternoon “Record.”
We had no radio station until 1946, so one might say the Oats and Noyeses, who owned the paper, owned the town.
Organizations were much more a part of community life. There were the Elks, the Knights of Columbus, Lions, Eagles and the Moose — all the bird and animal clubs. Few of them now exist.
The Holy Name Society in the Catholic churches were so big, they often would have parades in downtown Norwich. Each Catholic church had its own division — Taftville and Greeneville, St. Patrick’s, Sacred Heart in Norwichtown and Sts. Peter and Paul. The Holy Name Society marched on Sunday, before Communion breakfasts in each of the churches.
Getting back to the Fourth of July, we all knew what it was about, and the day would start early in the morning, as young boys would get up and fire their first firecracker at 6 or 6:30 a.m. The only critters that didn’t like the Fourth of July were the dogs. Their sensitive ears picked up the sound of the loud firecrackers, and the dogs would hide under the beds. Our dog actually hid in the coal bin.
In those days, there was no oil, a limited amount of gas, but everybody burned coal. Coal was delivered by truck and taken from coal trucks and wagons and poured into the shoots that carried coal into the coal bins, which were right across from the furnace in the basements.
On those cold, winter nights, the man of the house would fire up the furnace, and if there were boys in the family, in the morning they would shovel the ashes into the ash can before they walked off to school.
As there was a magic about the Fourth of July, there was magic about those summers during the 1930s and then, of course during the war years that followed the Depression.
Looking back, those of us in our 80s had a very tough childhood. We did without during the Depression, and then, when the war started, butter, sugar, chocolate, rubber tires and gasoline were rationed. It wasn’t until the American troops defeated the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese that the world settled down, that the men came home and somehow we all realized what a great country we were. We had saved the world.
The cost had been terrible, but the Depression was over, the war was over, and then, little by little, today’s society took the Fourth of July away from us. There are no firecrackers, no Roman candles, no sky rockets. There are public displays, people have cookouts, and I wonder if half the children who celebrate the Fourth have any idea what this most wonderful day is all about … that 13 little colonies defeated the greatest power on Earth and established an experiment that created the greatest country in the history of the world — America.
This is the Fourth of July weekend. Let us pray for our country, and salute her majesty and goodness. Old-timers wish we could get up early on the Fourth and go out and shoot firecrackers to celebrate America.
Bill Stanley’s prize-winning, latest book, “The 9-Mile Square,” is available at Lawrence & Memorial and Backus Hospital gift shops, Magazines & More, all branches of the Dime Savings Bank, Chelsea Groton, Eastern Federal, People’s Bank, Johnson’s Flowers and Gift Shop in Norwich, Wonderland Books in Putnam, or credit card by calling 1-800-950-0331